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Friday, August 10, 2012

How to Get Started After a Break

Let us face the truth: we all take a break now and then. Maybe we are resting up after a strenuous season of performing. Maybe we have just finished a grueling series of activities that demanded a great deal of our time and emotion. Maybe we just came back from a much deserved vacation. Whatever the reason, we needed a break and we took it. Now we have had our rest and we need to get started back up again with our practice routine. But how? What is the best way to get started up again? I suggest that you follow three steps:

  1. Evaluate Your Routine
  2. Start Small
  3. Build Your Plan

Step One: Evaluate Your Routine

First of all, I presume that you had a routine in the past. That would be good. If you did not have a routine or did not have much of a routine, this is a great chance for you to nail down this important point. As any music teacher will tell you, your child's music education and ability development will go much smoother and be much easier for you, the practice parent, if the child has a regular, structured practice routine. Your child's music teacher will be able to accomplish a great deal more in lessons. Your child's self esteem will grow as the child has more of a sense of accomplishment at lessons and in practices.

However, even if you had a regular, structured practice routine, this does not mean that you must remain tied to that routine. If you have taken a break, this would be a very good time to evaluate the effectiveness of your practice plan and routine. Is the practice plan still serving you and your family well? As you look ahead to the coming month, semester, or year, will your current routine fit well with whatever other demands there are on your time and energy?

Now would also be a good time to introduce any new elements that you planned to include in your home practices. Will you use a new recording system? Have you discovered a goal-planning form that you thought looked promising and useful? Do you have some new practice incentives or review plans? Have you learned of a new practice tip from another helpful parent?

Now is also a good time to do a little research about practicing or reviewing. I have a friend who recently published a book about reviewing. I would love to interview her for you, but in the meantime, you might look into her books now: Sue Hunt and her Music in Practice website.

Another useful website is Leslie Thackeray's The Practice Shoppe. You may find many interesting items here along with numerous practice charts in the site's free downloads section. I hope to bring you an interview from Leslie too one day.

Step Two: Start Small

As with any endeavor, it is better to start with a small step. For my pre-twinkle and early book 1 students, my "small step" is to go back to the very beginning. At first, the student's concentration and focus will need attention. If the student had enough ability to concentrate and focus for a 30 minute lesson previously, I may now find that the student's focus is merely strong enough for half that time. That is alright, because the student's focus will grow back to normal in as little as a week or a few days of concentrated effort.

I start with concentration games: staring contest, look-at-the-toy, peek-a-boo, and other "fascination" type games. I also go back to the basics in terms of posture. I notice that after a break, students seem to forget how to take a bow, stand in rest position, and get ready in playing position with the usual set up steps. So I go back to the beginning and work these initial set up steps again and again until students can once again do the set up steps routine without thinking. I may spend the entire first lesson working on this issue. I try to turn this into a fun game of "Suzuki Says," but my goal is to have my student and his or her parent go home with this issue well in hand. To read my previous article about set up steps, click here.

If there is any time left in the lesson (I would certainly hope so!), then I go to the next step. For pre-twinklers, my next step is to work through the pre-twinkle songs that we learn in lessons and group classes:
  • Flower Song (Marilyn O'Boyle)
  • Monkey Song (Marilyn O'Boyle)
  • Songs from Joanne Martin's "Magic Carpet for Violin" (e.g., Tango, Easter Island Monkey, Bow River Fiddling)
  • Songs from David Tasgal's "Strings Fun & Easy," such as:
    • Lullaby
    • Duck Song
    • Blast Off
    • I'm Number One
    • We also use many of these songs to learn to read music.
For my book 1 students, after I check the set up steps and posture issues, I begin with the Twinkle Variations. If the student and parent have taken a break, then the Twinkle Variations are exactly the place to start. Even though I am a professional performing musician for over 42 years, I still find the Twinkle Variations to be the best method of cleaning up any bad habits in my posture, my playing, or my sound. I begin with the Twinkle Variations for all of my students as well as for myself. From there I progress to songs that occur in later books.

For most of my young students, I find that it never hurts to review songs that the students previously learned; in fact, I highly recommend review as the best step to take to improve a student's learning. I may spend most of the first group class in the fall semester reviewing songs that we already should know. I want my students to review regularly, but I know that unless I check on this every week, it may be skipped in home practices.

Even my most advanced students benefit from a review of early songs. I have my favorites for checking various points: Perpetual Motion, Etude, Minuet 2 or 3, Musette, Waltz, Gavotte from "Mignon," Minuet in G, Becker's Gavotte, Bach's Two Gavottes (book 3), Bach's BourrĂ©e (book 3), the Seitz Concertos, the outer movements of the Vivaldi A minor Concerto, and so forth. Still, all of the songs in the Suzuki repertoire serve an important purpose in advancing a student's skill development, so all of the songs are worth reviewing.

I focus very strongly on review after my students have taken a break. I find that this type of intense review may take a few days or at most a week, but if a parent approaches this review with the right focus, the Suzuki practice world will improve immensely.

Step Three: Build Your Plan

Once you have evaluated your previous practice routine and plan and done some intense review of the building blocks of posture and playing well, it is time to build your future plan. There are several important ingredients to a good practice plan no matter what the age or level of the student or musician. I include the following components when I build a practice plan for my students: listening, review, tonalization, technique building, interpretation time, and performance time.
  • Listening
I ask my students to listen every day to the repertoire they are studying. For example, if a student is in book 1, then I expect that student to listen to the book 1 songs daily. I ask parents to play the CD with a "background" volume and set it to repeat ("background" volume is a volume that allows you to talk without feeling a need to raise your voice to talk over the recording. When you set the volume appropriately, you will quickly forget that the music is playing, but the music plays and the listening magic happens). When appropriate, the student can add the book 2 CD, and so forth. I knew one mom who made a special recording of all ten of the Suzuki violin volumes and looped it through the house every day. I myself listen regularly to the repertoire that I study.

I have heard criticism about the listening program from non-Suzuki teachers that says listening will cause students to be robotic in their playing. I do not agree. As painters learn from studying and imitating the great masters in the Louvre, I believe that music students will learn with study to imitate the great performers that my students hear in good recordings. My advanced students do not automatically copy what they hear on a recording but instead bring a discussion to lessons about what they like and dislike in the recordings that my students heard. I encourage this sort of scholarship. This discerning evaluation all begins with a solid and consistent listening program.
  • Review
A practice plan should include review of previous material that the student learned. Everything in the Suzuki repertoire builds on previous material. It is simpler to introduce new skills by incorporating them into material that is familiar and therefore easy for students to play. I strongly recommend that parents develop a systematic plan that will review previously learned material. Whether this plan includes a review chart, a coffee can full of popsicle sticks, an envelope with slips of paper, or a creative game challenge, parents should develop a system that will keep the student's focus on this important part of skill development. I like to include review items in the beginning of a practice routine to warm up the student's muscles, mental processes, and memory.
  • Tonalization
Vocalists vocalize by practicing long tones to develop a beautiful sound or tone. Dr. Suzuki created the term "tonalization" to represent the similar study that other instruments do. Brass and woodwind players practice long tones. Dr. Suzuki thought that string players should also work on building tone through similar exercises. There are many possibilities to practice tonalization in the Suzuki repertoire; Dr. Suzuki included many such exercises throughout the Suzuki books. For more advanced students, a scale program or etude book might also serve as a place to develop a good tone and strong sound. Even pre-twinkle students may work on tonalization by playing open string songs or simple Twinkle rhythms on open strings. Every student of every level should incorporate tonalization of one kind or another in a practice plan. I like to include tonalization exercises early in the practice plan while the student is still warming up. Tonalization exercises provide a nice connection between warming up and technique building, the next area of my ideal practice plan.
  • Technique Building
This area of the practice plan would include any areas of new skill and ability development. Perhaps the student has several previews of new songs to practice, or the student is adding new skills to previously learned songs. I would include anything new in the student's practice plan in this area. For advanced students, this could also include scales and etudes. I like to add technique building items early in the practice plan while the student's energy and focus are still fresh.
  • Interpretation Time
This area is especially important for advanced students, but even younger or less advanced students can include this in the practice plan. I find that sometimes students and parents focus too easily on the technique building phase and neglect the expressive phase of music making. By focusing some time and attention on the skill of expression and interpretation, students learn how to build something larger than themselves. Students learn how to use music to connect with listeners and others, including fellow musicians.

Interpretation time includes attention to phrasing, dynamics, style, and musical expression. Here is a link to an article about artistic phrasing rules that was written by Leila Viss.
  • Performance Time
One of the best ways to get back into a practice routine is to set up a performance schedule. Look ahead and schedule any possible performances. Perhaps it is a monthly community performance. We have a local coffee shop that provides performance opportunities for young students on the first Thursday night of each month. Performance opportunities might also include school talent shows, church services, studio recitals, community Christmas programs, or book graduation recitals. Put these performance opportunities on the calendar and work backwards to figure out mini-goals to prepare for the performances.

When starting up after a break, remember to think and start small. Build slowly. Reevaluate what you have done before. Add the components of a good practice plan that I have listed above a few at a time. It may seem overwhelming at first, but the process of igniting the practice fire will actually take less time than one would imagine.

The tricks are simple:

Get started.

Start small.


  1. Nothing like doing the work for the teacher -- Why not!

    1. Well, I wish it were that simple, but if the parent and student have lost focus due to a disruption in scheduling (school holiday, extended illnesses, or other life event disruptions), then my experience is that they have a bit of trouble getting back on track without my help. What I have written about here is just that, my advice on how to get back on track. My parents/students tell me that these ideas get them back on track within a few days. Worth a try. As the teacher, I am certainly not off the hook, but neither am I entirely responsible. I help where I can, but ultimately it is up to the parent or student to accept and follow my advice and put it into action. I can't practice for them, can I?